Promissory Note: Legal Definition, Issuance and Negotiability

What is a Promissory Note?

A promissory note is a legally binding written agreement in which one party promises to pay a specific amount of money to another party by a certain date or upon demand.

Promissory Note meaning: In lending and borrowing, documentation becomes paramount. A well-drafted document not only offers clarity regarding the terms and conditions of the transaction but also provides legal recourse should disputes arise.

One such significant document is the “Promissory Note.” Let’s delve deeper into understanding its elements and significance in the legal context.

Promissory Note Meaning and Definition

At its core, a promissory note is a written promise to pay another party a certain amount of money, either at a specified future date or upon demand.

Unlike more complicated agreements like mortgages or loan agreements, it typically covers basic terms and lacks extensive provisions or covenants. Its primary purpose is to provide written evidence of an obligation to pay a debt.

Key elements

For it to be legally valid, it must contain certain essential elements:

  • Maker and Payee: The ‘maker’ is the person who promises to pay, and the ‘payee’ is the person to whom the amount is owed.
  • Principal Amount: This is the amount that the maker promises to pay the payee, not including interest.
  • Interest: If applicable, the rate of interest is mentioned. It’s the principal percentage added over a specified period (monthly, annually, etc.).
  • Date of Maturity: The specific date on which the maker promises to repay the total amount.
  • Terms of Repayment: It details how payments will be made, whether in instalments or a lump sum.
  • Default Provisions: Conditions and consequences if the maker fails to pay on time.
  • Signature: The note must be signed by the maker. Some jurisdictions may also require witnesses or notary acknowledgement.

Is it necessary to notarize a promissory note?

Notarizing it is not universally necessary for it to be valid. It is generally considered legally binding once it is signed by the parties involved.

However, getting it notarized can provide additional validation, confirming the signatures’ authenticity and the parties’ willingness to enter into the agreement.

Some jurisdictions or specific circumstances might require or recommend notarization to prevent disputes or for record-keeping.

Promissory note vs other financial instruments

While a promissory note might sound similar to other financial instruments, it has distinct features:

  • Bill of Exchange: While both documents signify a written promise, a bill of exchange involves three parties – the drawer, drawee, and payee. In contrast, a promissory note primarily involves two parties.
  • Loan Agreement: A loan agreement is often more detailed than a promissory note and includes comprehensive terms, covenants, and loan conditions. A promissory note, in contrast, is more concise.
  • IOU: An IOU (I owe you) merely acknowledges a debt and the amount owed. It lacks the formal promise to pay, interest rate and other terms commonly found in a promissory note.

Read article: UCC 3-104 (Negotiable Instrument): Legal Commentaries and Analysis

Legal significance

Its significance lies in its enforceability. In most jurisdictions:

  • Negotiability: Promissory notes can often be transferred or sold, making them negotiable instruments. The note holder can have the right to receive payment, even if they were not the original lender.
  • Collateral: They can be secured or unsecured. A secured promissory note is backed by collateral, like property or assets, which can be seized in the event of non-payment.
  • Statute of Limitations: Every jurisdiction has its statute of limitations, after which a promissory note cannot be legally enforced. It’s essential to be aware of this timeframe.
  • Legal Recourse: If the maker defaults, the payee can take legal action to recover the owed amount.

Is A Promissory Note A Negotiable Instrument?

A promissory note is considered a negotiable instrument. In legal terms, a negotiable instrument is any written document that promises to pay a specific amount of money, either on demand or at a set future date and is payable to a specific person or any bearer.

It contains an unconditional promise by one party (the maker) to pay a definite sum of money to another party (the payee) or its order.

The negotiability of such an instrument means it can be transferred from one person to another.

If endorsed by the original payee, the rights and obligations associated with the note are transferred to the new holder.

This transferability allows promissory notes to be bought, sold, or used as collateral, making them an essential tool in various financial transactions and markets.

Read article: UCC 3-104 (Negotiable Instrument) Explained

Can A Promissory Note Be Handwritten, Or Must It Be Typed?

A promissory note can indeed be handwritten and still be legally valid if it contains all the essential elements of the agreement, such as the amount owed, the interest rate, repayment terms, and the parties’ signatures.

The handwritten or typed format does not inherently determine its validity. However, a typed note can offer clearer legibility and a more professional appearance, potentially reducing ambiguities or misunderstandings.

Regardless of the format chosen, ensuring the content is accurate and comprehensive is vital. If unsure about its enforceability, consulting with legal counsel is recommended.

How Do I Record A Promissory Note On My Financial Statements?

Recording a promissory note on financial statements depends on whether you are the borrower (maker) or the lender (payee).

If you are the borrower, the promissory note represents a liability. Upon issuance, you would record the note as a long-term liability unless it is due within one year, in which case it is a current liability.

You would debit (increase) the asset account you received (e.g., cash) and credit (increase) “Notes Payable” for the borrowed amount. Over time, as you pay interest or reduce the principal, you would adjust these amounts.

If you’re the lender, the note is an asset. Upon issuance, you would record the note as a receivable. You would debit (increase) “Notes Receivable” and credit (decrease) the asset given (e.g., cash). As the borrower pays you back or earns interest, you would adjust your asset and interest income accounts.

Always ensure that accompanying notes to the financial statements offer clarity on terms, interest rates, and maturity of the promissory note.

Can a promissory note be discharged in bankruptcy?

A promissory note can be discharged in bankruptcy, but the specifics depend on the jurisdiction and type of bankruptcy filed.

In the U.S., for instance, if a debtor files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and obtains a discharge, most personal loans represented by promissory notes are typically dischargeable, meaning the debtor is no longer legally required to pay them.

However, certain debts, like some tax obligations, alimony, child support, and student loans, are exceptions and may not be easily discharged. If the note is secured by collateral, the lender may still have rights to the collateral, even if the underlying debt is discharged.


A promissory note offers clarity, simplicity, and legal protection in the intricate web of financial transactions. Whether you’re lending money as a personal favour or entering a business transaction, this document ensures both parties know their obligations.

Before drafting or signing one, it’s always recommended to consult with legal professionals to ensure its enforceability and compliance with local laws.

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